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Wednesday, April 28,2010

Clearing the air

Bars and restaurants prepare for Michigan’s new smoking ban, which goes into effect Saturday

by Neal McNamara

If he had lived to see a smoking ban become law in Michigan, Ronald M. Davis would have been proud. Davis was, as described in his New York Times obituary, a “health crusader” who “stayed in the Sisyphean fight against smoking and other health hazards in a nation of fast foods, caloric binges, lazy ways and the anodynes of liquor and cocaine.”


Davis was involved in smoking bans elsewhere, a former president of the American Medical Association who worked at the Centers for Disease Control in the 1980s while former surgeon general C. Everett Coop damned the deadliness of cigarettes.


Davis died of pancreatic cancer in his home in East Lansing in November 2008. In his honor, as lawmakers often do, Michigan’s smoking ban bears his name: the Dr. Ron Davis Smokefree Air Law. (The idea to name the law after Davis came from Karen Holcomb-Merrill, who works for the Michigan League of Human Services, and who was once a consultant for the Tobacco-Free Michigan.)


But it was a long time coming. The Campaign for Smokefree Air, a coalition made up of many groups like the American Heart and Lung Association and the Michigan State Medical Society, worked for five years to get the law passed. The group created the law and brought it to state legislators. State Rep. Joan Bauer, D-Lansing, introduced one form of the law; it was slightly stricter than the one set to take effect on Saturday, because it would have banned smoking in casinos and cigar shops.


“For years, especially as I’ve traveled, it was amazing to me that Michigan continued to allow smoking in public places, especially as more and more states went smoke-free,” Bauer said. “You would go someplace else, come back, and be amazed that we hadn’t been able to move this legislation.”


Emily Palsrok, who works for the public relations firm John Bailey and Associates, which handled the issue, said that the group supported at least six or seven different versions of a smoking ban. Michigan’s law was not modeled after any other ban in the country, she said, but its crafting was able to draw from other states’ experiences.


“I believe we have one of the strongest laws in the country,” she said.


A major part of the law is its ban on smoking in food service establishments, which includes bars. This, said state Department of Community Health spokesman James McCurtis, includes patios attached to restaurants and bars because they are covered by the estab lishment’s food or liquor license. (The law may exempt small bed and breakfasts, and McCurtis said that this is because its only employee could own the establishment.)


“If (a patio) is connected to a bar or restaurant, then no, there’s no smoking there,” McCurtis said.


The ban also prevents smoking in government buildings and public places like museums, concert halls and arts exhibition spaces. Rendering an establishment a “private club” would not circumvent the law, said McCurtis. Places like VFW posts, country clubs or ethnic halls are not exempt from the ban.


The state recently ruled cigar bars are exempt from the ban, but they would have to have existed before May 1. Community Helath Department released a memo on Friday stating that cigar bars can be licensed to serve food and drinks, but their exemption only allows cigars, not cigarettes. Tobacco retail shops are exempt if they existed before May 1 but they cannot serve food or drink.


Bar and restaurant owners and citizens will be the ban’s enforcers, say officials. Local health departments and the state will respond to complaints from citizens. Police officers, for example, cannot write a ticket to a bar for allowing smoking, but like any citizen, could file a complaint with the local or state health department. The first offense is a $100 fine, and each fine after that is $500.


Ingham County Health Department spokesman Marcus Cheatham said that he expects the department will be called into action by complaints rather than by random checks, the same way complaints of food poisoning are checked out.


“We don’t get them to comply by cracking down on them, but helping them with problems,” he said. “It’ll be rare that someone will not comply with the law.”


Ingham County, in fact, had its own smoking ban passed last year that would have required bars and restaurants to physically separate smoking and nonsmoking areas. The law is now moot.


Kim Singh, director of the Mid- Michigan District Health Department, which oversees Clinton, Barry and Gratiot counties, said her staff will check on compliance, but will “definitely respond” to consumer complaints.


McCurtis said that the state does not plan to hire any new workers to enforce the law and does not expect to reap much revenue from fines.


“We’re not looking for this to be a fine-heavy law. We want compliance,” McCurtis said. “We want people to obey the law and help make Michigan a healthier, cleaner place to live.”

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